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generational prototypesWe have been talking about the Millennial generation (aka “Gen Y”) for years now, but the topic is still hot. Time Magazine recently devoted its cover and a large spread on the topic of “Millennials: The ME ME ME Generation.” The author, Joel Stein, cites data for the stereotypes of the Millennials; they are “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” But he loves them, too, and sees how their energy, earnestness and optimism can turn the world in a better direction. He believes in them.

A Harvard Business Review blog, “Hitting the Intergenerational Sweet Spot,” names a few similar stereotypes but focuses on similarities rather than differences between this generation and others. The author says that we exaggerate the differences between the generations and can create greater engagement by focusing on similarities.

I talk about generational differences in the same way I do about masculine and feminine differences. Stereotyping is flawed (and offensive). I note that the values and behaviors of the four generations in today’s workplace form four overlapping bell curves. To reach a common understanding of each generation, I focus on a prototype – a representative who consistently operates in the middle (fat) part of the bell curve for that generation. So, of course, I agree with the HBR piece that differences, at the level of individual, are exaggerated.

While it is a nice thought that we should focus on similarities rather than differences, I think understanding differences is also important. Understanding how and why Millennials (on average) have certain values and traits can help in managing and engaging them. Understanding differences (and why those differences exist) can reduce judgment and enable choice and even appreciation. For example, see my blog on how styles of parenting influenced the Millennial generation. It certainly helps me to accept this generation when I realize my own part in creating it!

The goal of working with people of different races, genders or generations is not to fool ourselves that we are all the same. Ask any person of color how he or she feels when white people say they are “color blind.” Recognizing difference allows us to see strengths that we may not have and to leverage those strengths and different perspectives and experiences.

In what ways do you find value in appreciating difference? in focusing on similarities?